How Dude Ranches Work

By: Sarah Winkler
dude ranch
Two cowboys round up cattle on a cattle drive on the Double Mountain River Ranch outside Raton, Texas.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

In th­e 1991 film "City Slickers," three middle-aged men disengage from their suburban struggles for a two-week-long cattle drive at a dude ranch in the Colorado hills. During the course of their adventure, the three hapless amigos run into everything from tumultuous weather to cow births. The slapstick comedy depicts the mayhem that occurs when people accustomed to lives far-removed from nature decide to live out their John Wayne fantasies in the Wild West. But leaving the creature comforts of home for the rugged life of a cowboy isn't just the stuff of movies. It's a back-to-basics form of tourism as old as the hills -- the dude ranch.

The advent of the dude ranch owes much to the nostalgia for the frontier. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier was gone; unsettled areas were few and far between, and the frontier line, the boundary between unsettled and settled areas, had disappeared. An era of American history had come to a close [source: PBS]. The cowboy who had once served a very practical purpose was now the stuff of legend. Around the time of Turner's declaration, dude ranches began sprouting up in the West to serve East coasters who wanted to experience cowboy life.


Today, the main goal of the dude ranch is to enrich both body and mind. By surrounding yourself with the natural beauty of some of the most remote areas of the western wilderness, you can relax and take a deep breath. You also have the opportunity to do some ranch work, which will undoubtedly help your physical fitnes­s. You can ride a horse, go for a walk on a trail, or just sit back in a hammock and watch cattle and horses roam.

­Due to the diversity of the dude ranch experience, a variety of people enjoy these unique vacations. Families enjoy dude ranches because they can spend quality time together in a learning environment. Children have a lot of freedom on dude ranches; the safe, small environment allows kids to learn a variety of skills through hands-on experience. Solo travelers can enjoy the peace and quiet of the great outdoors, while having the opportunity to work with others on the ranch. Business groups use the dude ranch experience as a team-building exercise -- co-workers bond through hard work in a distraction-free environment.

The dude ranch has come along way since its beginnings -- or has it? What were the first dude ranches like? And which American president popularized it in its earliest days?


History of the Dude Ranch

The first dude ranch can be traced back the 19th century. Following the Civil War cattle bo­om of the 1880s, Howard Eaton established the Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands. Joined soon after by his brothers and a friend, Eaton wrote East to spread the word about the ranch.

Interestingly, the dude ranch was popularized primarily by presidential rough rider Theodore Roosevelt. After reading one of Eaton's letters in a New York magazine, the pre-presidential Roosevelt, who was about to stage a failed mayoral campaign in New York, became intrigued by the idea, packed up his things and headed to the Dakota Badlands. He spent his time hunting, fishing and riding, and let his friends back East know that the ranch had earned his seal of approval. He bought the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch, and soon after, hosted visitors.


In the beginning, the guests weren't exactly providing lucrative business. In fact, they were relying on the generosity of their hosts. Guests began to offer pay for room and board, but that didn't line up with the Eatons' Western hospitality. However, after they realized they might turn a profit, the family soon changed their minds, and Bert Rumsey of Buffalo, N.Y., became the first paying visitor to sign the Custer Trail Ranch guest book [source: Dude Ranch History]. The "dudes" had arrived.

The Eatons began charging an all-inclusive $10 fee per week for each guest. They crafted an experience for their visitors that included ranch chores, such as roping, cattle drives, rounding up stray cows and riding. These activities were designed to improve the mental and physical health of the city folk who visited. And this focus became the trademark of all dude ranches.

As the railroad expanded at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the dude ranch continued to gain popularity. Additionally, the struggling cattle industry in the 1920s made cash-strapped ranchers embrace the dude ranch as a new opportunity to increase revenue.

The dude ranch continued to flourish and cropped up throughout the American West. Dude ranches also have been established in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. On the next page, we'll take a look at dude ranch activities.


Types of Dude Ranches

dude ranch
Horseback riding is a popular activity at dude ranches.
Seth Joel/Getty Images

The rich history of the dude ranch means that many ranches have been kept in the family for several generations, which has allowed the overall experience to remain intact for a very long time. Although the basic mission of the dude ranch hasn't change much, various forms of the dude ranch and dude ranch activities have evolved over the years. The activities you'll participate in will depend on the type of dude ranch you choose to visit.

There are three basic types of dude ranches:


  • Working dude ranch: These types of ranches are working cattle or sheep operations. Horseback riding excursions are limited to those directly related to the ranch's livestock work. The working dude ranch is the most authentic ranch experience, so be prepared for some hands-on activities and perhaps even menial labor. If you're staying on a working dude ranch, you might be put to the task of mucking out a stall or assisting in herding some cattle.
  • Dude ranch: At a basic dude ranch, the emphasis of your experience will be on horseback riding. You'll learn to ride like a cowboy and you'll also experience other Western outdoor activities like lassoing and helping to move cattle to new pastures.
  • Resort dude ranch: These establishments are a little more upscale as far as accommodations go. You can expect rooms, food and entertainment to be similar to what you'd find on a cruise. Resort dude ranches offer a more diverse array of activities and facilities and they are usually larger ranches.

At all dude ranches, riding is an important activity. All ranches in the Dude Ranchers' Association (DRA), the governing board of the North American dude ranch industry, provide riding instruction for those looking to improve their skills. To become a member of the DRA, a ranch must be located west of the Mississippi River, be horse-oriented (that is, it offers riding instruction and provides riding equipment), be inspected for high standards of cleanliness and guest comfort and be in operation for at least two years.


Dude Ranch Activities

Not every dude ranch will give you the chance to lasso a calf or drive cattle, but almost any dude ranch will offer horseback riding. Dude ranches offer lessons for first-time riders and more advanced activities for intermediate and advanced riders. Safety is a priority, so experienced staffers will match you with an appropriate horse and the necessary equipment to keep you safe.

The location of your dude ranch will determine the types of activities offered. Activities include:


  • Elk, moose, bear, antelope and bear hunting trips
  • Overnight camping trips on the open range
  • All-day rides
  • Cattle drives
  • Team penning, a sport that evolved from the practice of separating cattle into pens; three riders must separate three cows from a group of 30 and herd them into pens.
  • Rodeos where cowboys and girls showcase roping and bull riding
  • Nature rides
  • Daily trail rides

If you're not the riding type but still want to visit a dude ranch, you can take advantage of many other kinds of activities, including nature walks, bird watching, petting zoos, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, rafting, massage services, hay rides, western dancing, campfires and even organized sports activities like golf or tennis.

Now that you know what kinds of activities you can participate in on a dude ranch, we'll take a look at how to decide which dude ranch is for you.


How to Choose a Dude Ranch

dude ranch
Children pet a lamb at a ranch in Montana.
Ralf Nau/Getty Images

As w­e discussed on the previous page, dude ranches offer a rich array activities for all kinds of people. In order to tailor the perfect dude ranch experience to you and your family, you'll want to consider the location of your dude ranch, the time of year you want to take your trip and the overall type of experience you want to have.

The first thing you'll want to consider is the location of your trip. Dude ranches endorsed by the Dude Ranch Association are located in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, and Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. The states offering the most ranches are Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Arizona. Additionally, dude ranches can be found in Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.


Once you've determined where you want to go, you'll want to consider the time of year to take your trip. Ranches in northern states are busiest in summer months due to their cooler climates. You can experience warm weather riding during the winter in the southern states.

Another thing that you'll want to take into consideration is the number of guests at the ranch. For example, staying at ranch that hosts eight guests will offer a very different experience than a ranch that serves 100 guests. You'll especially notice this difference during dining and social events.

Lastly, you want to think about what sort of accommodations you'd like. Ranches offer a wide range of atmospheres. You can stay at a rustic cabin with no running water or a luxurious hotel-like establishment. While all Dude Ranch Association ranches meet standards of cleanliness and comfort, if you want your stay to include a Jacuzzi and wireless Internet service, you should choose your ranch according to your needs.


Dude Ranch Packages

When booking your dude ranch vacation, you should ask about special or discounted rates. If you're traveling during the slow season and have flexible travel plans, you might be able to snag a deal. Like any vacation, be sure to book your stay in advance. Remember that some dude ranches are very small and may become fully booked quickly.

To optimize your dude ranch experience, you can take advantage of different types of packages designed to accommodate specific groups of people. For example, if you want to spend a fun-filled weekend with the girls, you can look for a girls getaway package. These types of group packages often include private cabins, massages, yoga, cocktail hours, champagne brunches and evening entertainment like country dances and karaoke parties. Many dude ranches also feature family packages and offer programs especially designed for children. Although some have programs staffed by professionals, others offer unsupervised activities that children can participate in with friends, parents and family members. You can even host events like family reunions at dude ranches.


Dude ranch rates are all-inclusive. In fact, since their inception in the 1880s, rates have included room, meals and activities. Rates generally range from $1,200 to $2,000 per person per week. Riding programs are included at almost all ranches. Extra fees might be charged for riding lessons, alcoholic beverages, airport transportation, river rafting, pack trips and cattle drives. However, you should be able to plan a full day of activities without accruing any extra fees. Gratuity is usually added to your final bill and distributed to all employees.

On the next page, we'll learn about what your itinerary might be like at a typical dude ranch.


A Week at a Dude Ranch

Cowboys wrestle a cow down for branding.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

Now that you've chosen a dude ranch, you'll want to know what to expect when you arrive. The great thing about dude ranches is that they provide enough structured activities to fill your days, but you are also afforded free time to explore on your own.

At most dude ranches, soon after check-in you may be welcomed to a late afternoon campfire. In the evening, you'll have time to settle into your accommodations and explore the ranch.


On day two, you'll attend horse orientation and training. Taking lessons early on will allow you to get the most out of the rest of your stay. Dude ranch professionals will work with each member of your group to make sure that all ability levels are accommodated.

If you're staying at a working dude ranch, your activities will reflect the real-life cowboy tasks. For example, you might be taught how to move cattle to new pastures to prevent overgrazing, calf-roping or even branding. To brand livestock, ranchers rope the animal, tie its legs together, and place a hot branding iron on its body. Some ranchers opt for tattoos or ear tagging as a substitute for livestock identification. A stay at a true-blue working dude ranch definitely isn't for the faint of heart.

After you've learned the basics of riding and familiarized yourself with your horse, the rest of the week is a blank canvas. You'll be free to take advantage of the programming available at the ranch or to just sit back, relax and immerse yourself in the beauty of your surroundings. For example, you might decide to try out your newly acquired horseback riding skills and take a ride with a group from the ranch. Most ranches provide a variety of guided ride lengths, such as two-hour, half-day or full-day rides. On overnight rides, a cook might accompany you to make sure that you're well fed throughout your adventure. During an overnight trip, you and your group might engage in storytelling, sing songs around the campfire and make s'mores -- the camping cliché.

Or, if you're not in a riding mood, you might decide to raft through a river canyon or take a hike through the mountains. You could visit a local national park, go fishing or simply sit in a hammock and read a book. The flexibility of the dude ranch experience allows for all types of people to get the most out of their adventure in the Wild West. On this unique tourist experience you'll get to experience the thrill of life as a cowgirl or cowboy, if only for a few days.


Lots More Information

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  • Colorado Dude Ranch Association.
  • The Dude Ranchers' Association.
  • Dude Ranchers' Educational Trust & Heritage Center.
  • Dude Ranches in USA, Canada and Mexico.
  • National Team Penning Championships
  • "People & Events: The Closing of the American Wilderness." PBS.
  • Red Horse Mountain Ranch.
  • Skeat, Walter. "The Origin of the Dude." The Anthenaeum. October 21, 1900.